If You’re a Child of Abraham, Reconsider Your Politics
This is a long read.
Last Monday, the people of the Philippines (give or take quite a few fraudulent votes) decided to reinstate a dictatorship. It won’t actually happen yet, and the formal process of getting there has been in place since 2016. Yet I feel uneasy about a fascist dictatorship, and I see that our choices as people of faith have led us to that. For now, I will argue in this essay that if we are children of Abraham (either Muslim, Christian, or Jewish), we should reconsider our belief in a modern democracy.
What this event, and indeed the rise of global fascism, has made me realize is that I have a love-hate relationship with democracy. I enjoy the way people engage with each other in democratic bodies, especially those under the Westminster system, where there is genuine responsiveness that often borders on the entertainingly raucous. The Australian Parliament is a very good example of that, and I recommend this somewhat entertaining YouTube channel if you want a glimpse of it.
However, I’ve come to the conclusion lately that it doesn’t seem to work at all. In fact, Winston Churchill was on to something when he said in 1947 that democracy is the worst form of government except for the others that have been tried. He began by pointing out that we live in a fallen world and lots of forms of government have or will be tried. Let me draw attention to the “world of sin and woe.” That is the world we live in. Whether or not we want to admit it, anything we try to do to make the world better often falls short in the long run. Democracy has a decent track record, but if you look at how democracies fail, it is interesting that it often happens in societies where Abrahamic faiths have thrived for centuries. If there’s something to that, what is it?
The Renaissance and the Enlightenment valued the Greco-Roman roots of the Western world against the allegedly corrupt age of Christendom. Here, the modern concept of “rule by the demos” was sort of born, and what they had in mind was the Athenian form of democracy. In Athens, the main decision-making body was the Ecclesia or the popular assembly (language which you will surely recognize if you know where it ends up later). I would say that it was “sort of” born because they also valued the Roman Republic, which was perhaps as complicated or more so than Athenian democracy. In other words, their conception of popular government was very different from what we take for granted now.
In fact, if you think about the most potent Enlightenment political text, worshiped by its adherents, it is not exactly democratic. Its framers distrusted democracy, which should be clear to everyone by now on all sides where that document has force. Moreover, even if they spoke of the people, they were quite honest about adopting one aspect of Athenian democracy that is very embarrassing by modern standards. In Athens, women and slaves could not vote in the Ecclesia or take part in political life. So that country didn’t have women’s suffrage for a long time, and slaves were just 60% of everyone else. I leave the reader to guess which document I’m talking about.
Underlying the contemporary concept of democracy is another part of the Enlightenment package, the idea of the autonomous, rational human being. One crucial aspect of democracy as we know it today is that the people, essentially an agglomeration of autonomous, rational human beings, get together directly or, more often than not, through leaders they choose, to decide how the world should run. However, one problem (out of many) with that idea is that, at its core, it is highly racist. For the early modern philosophers, the only people that properly fit that description of the autonomous, rational human being were white Anglo-European men. Even though over the centuries, we expanded the concept to cover everyone, it has been very difficult to do that. In fact, I suspect that the reemergence of voter suppression in the U.S. has much to do with this radical and definitely racist understanding.
The other problem is that in our time, some of the most convincing arguments against the Enlightenment understanding of the human person have had to do with the idea that we don’t really have inherent autonomy or rationality. We are determined by so many things, including how we were brought up, where we live, and so on. At the same time, we see how our fallen politics has led to movements where the human dignity of some (supposedly derived from our autonomous rationality) has been subdued by the unconditional worship of the Nation or Volk, made incarnate in the State. That is what fascism looks like, whether it comes in Communist or Nazi flavors. All this has led me to conclude that we need to step back and ask whether our democratic politics can cure that problem, or should we look somewhere else.
If you’re Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, you might want to pay careful attention to what I am about to say. (A note: While I’m not too familiar with Muslim sources, and I admit having had my head spin at a class in the Graduate Theological Union on Muslim legal jurisprudence, I believe that they see Christianity and Judaism as preliminary revelations of what God definitely revealed in the Qur’an. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is relevant to and resonant with Muslim readers.) I am arguing that we got it all wrong all along. We are not autonomous, or inherently rational by ourselves. And if you go back to the sources, you will find that there’s some basis for it. If we accept that and look at the trajectory of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, we will find that our politics in a fallen world is ultimately a parting of ways from who really has the final say over it.
The Torah, for example, emphasizes how the loving, liberating, and life-giving God entered into a covenant with the people God set free from Egypt, from that place of slavery. That people, in return, promised to obey whatever God commanded them. Among themselves, the people, who were likely a motley collection of Canaanite tribes, got together, and eventually, the Torah enshrined the foundational myth of Israel, or “why are we Israel in the first place?” In this framework, God is the ruler, someone who is ultimately transcendent, and the people choose to be subject to the rule of the ultimate Liberator. The Exodus account makes it clear that God is the one who freed Israel, and Aaron and Moses led the people because God chose them to help fulfill that task.
Now here’s where I begin my argument, and I am grateful to my father, Rene Aguila, for often mentioning it in the context of everyday politics. In the story of Israel, there came a time when the people were exhausted with the kind of government they had, which was founded upon unifying, ad hoc leaders who modeled themselves after Moses. In 1 Samuel 8, we read of how that happened. Samuel, the last judge whose sons were deeply corrupt, was approached by a (distressed) group of elders with a demand. “Listen,” they said, “You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the nations have.” (1 Sam 8:5) My dad says that whenever Filipinos clamor for a different form of government, he remembers this line. Of course, my dad and I both knew what came next. Samuel approaches the Lord, who called him to his office, and asks God what to do. Here is what the Lord answered:
- Samuel was not being rejected by the people, contrary to what Samuel must have believed.
- Rather, the people decided to renounce the Lord as their ruler.
- The Lord added a bit of context: they have been doing that all the time because of their propensity for idolatry.
- If they were to have a king, Samuel was to tell them what that king would do to them. Basically, the idea was that it would end up being no different than when they were in Egypt.
But the elders insisted. That is what has been happening in human history ever since if you adopt that perspective as I do.
I don’t really think that we should go back to the anarchist past of Israel, and in fact, the account continues that God eventually instructed Samuel to choose and anoint Saul. Actually, as I learned in my Old Testament introduction, it’s not that straightforward. There are three or four accounts of how that happened. In all of these, the story makes it clear. God chose Saul. It was not the elders. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we can see the concept of the ideal Israelite ruler. To sum it up: God chose that ruler, and that ruler, in turn, had to abide by the covenant God made with the people. And part of that covenant was to remember how God liberated Israel and ultimately became their ruler. Here is an anachronistic analogy: the Israelite ruler was a “constitutional monarch,” and the “constitution” was the Torah. If that ruler strayed by disobeying the moral and religious dictates the Torah set out, that ruler was in trouble, along with the whole realm.
I would have gone on talking about how it all went from there, but I’ll move on to where Christianity picks up the tale. One concept that arose late in Second Temple Jewish religion was the ideal of the Anointed One, the ruler who God chose to liberate Israel from the domination of the other nations. That ruler would usher in the reign of God, who would remake the cosmos and who would restore Israel to its place as God’s elect people. There were many candidates for that role, but one of them stood out especially in the minds of his very enthusiastic followers: Jesus of Nazareth.
That enthusiasm for Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One, was somewhat misplaced by that time’s standards. Most Judeans expected that figure to be just like David, a military and political leader who drove out the enemy from their land. However, Jesus was different. He revealed that liberation went beyond politics. It extended to our fallen humanity, still made in God’s image and likeness even though obscured. He wanted to restore the reign of God, but it would be a reign unlike any other the Judeans had known. God didn’t give up on God’s people even if they rejected him as their king. They still believed that and in the minds of those who eventually followed the Way, Jesus was the one who made God’s reign known: a truly loving, liberating, and life-giving reign. (Thank you, Michael Curry.)
And in so doing, Jesus established a new covenant with God’s people, which now covered the whole of humanity, beyond a backwater strip of land in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. In that covenant, the people would follow the way of the Lord by living lives worthy of the reign of God. They did so by sharing what they had with each other — even to the point of owning everything in common. They were exhorted to live good lives by the standards of the time. To avoid needless trouble, they were to be good citizens of the Empire, but only because they were told that the Empire ultimately derived its authority from God.
However, the Revelation according to John reveals how that Empire was not quite anointed by God after all. It has blood on its hands. That book is the ultimate political text of the Bible. Whenever I think of how Christians embraced the modern concept of nationalism over the centuries since it was conceived, the book of Revelation still resonates. It puts all earthly authority into question by revealing what it really is. So we may obey the Emperor, but the Emperor really has no clothes. God and the Lamb still reign.
That tension inherent in the Bible still persists into our time, and it would be wise to bear that in mind when we respond to the political storms we face. In the end, though, I can envision a political system in any country where the children of Abraham live that acknowledges God’s reign and puts all political power into perspective. It is definitely not a modern democracy. We do not determine our destiny, but we discern it together, submitting to God’s ultimate command. And when we have leaders, we obey them not because they inherently hold power through a constitution or force of popular will, but because we believe that God has given them the grace to administer our land in God’s name.
This begs the question: how do we make our political preparation for the final reign of God possible? My view is that unlimited secular republicanism is not the best solution here. There is a reason that, throughout Christian history, monarchs had to be anointed and crowned. To this day, the British monarch officially becomes such because of that act by the people of God, the new ecclesia. Even if many of Europe’s monarchs are no longer put into office the same way, the coronation of a new King or Queen at Westminster Abbey is a reminder of that ideal. In that ceremony, the monarch pledges to govern the kingdom entrusted to them by God justly and fairly and receives the Bible as the guiding compass for that rule.
If you’ve come this far, you might think that I am an unrepentant monarchist. You are half right. I admire that, even if Britain is resolutely secular, it chooses to have a national anthem that is one of the few that can properly be sung in church. It is not like what American Christians tend to do on the Sunday nearest July 4 or what the Iglesia Filipina Independiente always does every Sunday. It is properly a prayer. But it doesn’t follow that our lands have to be ruled, even nominally, by anointed and crowned monarchs. Even a republic will do, but it may have to reframe its political foundations according to the idea of a covenant. Social contract theory is a secularized version of that idea. When the people covenant to form a republic with its rulers and institutions, it is a covenant not only among themselves but with the God who brought forth their nation from slavery.
(If that were the case, one might ask, what about the separation of church and state? My answer is, first, it has been misunderstood to mean that communities of faith should shut the f — k up if injustice happens, just as the biblical prophets were silenced or even killed. Secondly, given where it was first introduced by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Baptists, people forget that the term itself does not appear in the Bill of Rights in the U.S. All the First Amendment says is that the federal government should not have something like the Church of England but encourage the free exercise of religious belief and life.)
So if we were to reframe our national political identity, and if we are a Christian country, we must acknowledge that, together, we are coming together as God’s people. We are not ultimately our own independent nation, but we are among the nations that together acknowledge God as ruler in various ways. And we do so knowing that we will come to an age of judgment where it is not only our individual selves facing the throne of God but our collective political lives.
One final thought: in a new political paradigm, we should really just do away with elections. If you ask me what the ideal way of choosing any leader, religious or secular, should be, the ancient Greeks and the early Christian church should inspire us. They chose (or, in Christian terms, set apart) leaders by lot. These days, we haven’t been good at choosing leaders. So maybe we might have to consider this solution very, very seriously.
So here is where I have something to say about current events. Because we prioritized the greatness of the Nation distilled in a strongman who would tell us what to do and how to restore that greatness, we failed God even by the nominal Christian standards we still cling on to. But we must remain hopeful that, together, we can work toward the reign of God despite all these challenges. This reign touches upon everything, and as children of Abraham, we should be very much aware of that.